At Keystone, teaching ethics goes far beyond the classroom

Jan 24 2020

At Keystone, teaching ethics goes far beyond the classroom

“A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon the world.”
–Albert Camus

You’re on a runaway trolley car as it hurtles down the track toward five unknowing people. At the last moment, you can turn the train onto another track. By doing so, you avoid killing the five; unfortunately, though, you will hit a lone individual standing on this different track and she will die. What do you do?

This was the philosophical dilemma we discussed in an upper school assembly this past Wednesday. We showed the students an excerpt from an episode of Harvard University Philosophy Professor Michael Sandel’s class called “Justice.” We took time to discuss this moral conundrum in small groups and as a larger group. On the surface, the question seems easy. If the choice is to kill one person or five, it’s a no-brainer. But is it that simple? Is killing ever right, and is taking the life of even one individual justifiable, even when it seems like the better of two bad options? If you’re interested, here’s the link to the excerpt. You may enjoy watching this fifteen minute clip and talking about it with your child.

Alumni Day 2020 panel

As you know, one of Keystone’s core values is ethical growth. Consequently, we teach children how to be ethically minded individuals in every division. For example, in Little School, the Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down Choices Program helps teachers and parents be on the same page in terms of teaching ethical behavior. The Wednesday morning’s Helping Hands lessons guide children in learning how to interact with others in a supportive and compassionate manner. In the Lower School, a social-emotional learning curriculum in each grade level includes mindfulness training, and we acknowledge good character in a number of ways including recognition on a wall, stickers, and whole division meetings.

In middle school, students continue to develop their social and emotional skills, including learning how to develop caring and supportive relationships with teachers while bonding with friends. Anti-bullying training in middle school allows for identification and lessons in ways to prevent this phenomenon. In an era of vitriolic and even violent political dialogue, we teach our high school students how to engage in civil discourse on contentious issues. We also ask our oldest students to grapple with real issues and consider what is the ethical way to respond to them.

Just last week, I observed a new high school elective called Practical Ethics taught by Dr. Anna Armentrout. The course teaches students different schools of ethical thinking and how these may apply to real-life situations. I watched an engaging conversation among students on moral objectivism versus moral relativism with students basing their opinions on what they read and its applicability to what they observe in their world today.

You can imagine that there are varied opinions on how to teach ethics, particularly in the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse and scandals. A post by Esteban Gomez called “10 Tips For Teaching Ethics” from the Capsim Business Learning Program suggests methods for inculcating ethical thinking and behavior in business students; these tips could apply to education at any level. Gomez’s tips are:

  • Make room for ethics
  • Focus on relevant situations
  • Focus on real-life experiences
  • Highlight reasons and impacts
  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Challenge your student by adding complexity
  • Give students the courage to ask the right questions
  • Expose students to a variety of experiences
  • Ethics can’t just come up in an Ethics Class
  • Ethics isn’t just about the student

Implementing these ten rules may not be easy or straight-forward when there’s so much other content to teach. However, the risk of not teaching ethical behavior is even more consequential. We want our students at Keystone to be academically strong; we also want them to take what they have learned and use it for good. Gomez says later that “ethical decision-making skills are best developed through the continuous experience and discussion of ethical dilemmas.”

As we listened to former Cobras during last week’s annual Alumni Day, it was heartening to hear how they took their Keystone experiences and applied them to the problems of today. Whether it was the epidemiologist working for the State of Texas who collects and applies data to public health problems, the assistant director at an art museum in Chicago who exposes audiences to underrepresented artists who should be better known, the inventor, the lawyer, the doctor, the writer, the real estate investor, or the engineer— these alumni inspired us with stories of creativity, resilience, determination, and ethical behavior. Our students learned from their forebears how to be successful, happy, and good people who can make lives that are prosperous, fulfilling, and meaningful. Thank you to the alumni who came back to share your stories!

Teaching ethical growth is not a one-time occurrence; children will experience ups and downs as they navigate situations requiring them to make decisions where the choice may not be between a good and a bad outcome but among a number of equally good or bad possibilities. As Keystone educators and as parents, we have the good fortune to be shepherding motivated and compassionate children as they develop their ethical selves; the work can sometimes be daunting, but it is always rewarding, and we are grateful for the opportunity to engage in such a meaningful and important endeavor.

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